It is impressive enough to be responsible for one film considered the greatest of all time. It’s even more impressive to produce two such movies, any more classic films will see you moved into the conversation (no pun intended) for the greatest filmmaker of all-time.
This is true of the man responsible for the director of today’s focus, Francis Ford Copolla. A director who, if he’d just made The Godfather would have enough of a reputation to dine out on for the rest of his life but would go on to produce further classics such as The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now and the film I’ll be looking at today, The Conversation.
Released in 1974 (incidentally, the same year The Godfather Part II was released) it focuses on Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), an increasingly-paranoid surveillance expert, who suffers a crisis of conscience when he fears that someone he’s been listening to will be murdered.
This sets the scene for an intriguingly tense near-two hour experience that flirts with multiple different plot threads and genres while making the audience start to feel as paranoid as Harry himself. You’ll certainly come away from this film with a newfound distrust of your phone.
Along with the rising tension of Henry’s ongoing paranoia about the world around him, is an unfolding mystery surrounding the people involved with his latest surveillance job.
All of this is established in an incredibly tightly-scripted and shot sequence, where we see the titular ‘conversation’ unfold, the people involved being unwittingly followed and recorded by Harry and his team.
It’s an effective scene because it efficiently sets the tone for the rest of the film, leaving you with a deep feeling of mistrust towards Harry, and anyone associated with him, along with its clever snippets of the recorded conversation, which are still to be fully amplified and uncovered throughout the film, leaving just enough for the audience to hear, and for them to want to see the rest pieced together.
It’s a film that will keep you on the back-foot for quite a while, and guessing where the plot is going to go, different characters and potential plot threads are teased, only for them to be a red herring, or to further enhance the underlying plot, or to more heavily focus on Harry as a character.
For instance, there’s a long sequence in roughly the mid-point of the film, where we’re introduced to several other such experts in their field, who seemingly know Harry and his work, who tease the audience with vague, mysterious details about Harry’s past, making him even more untrustworthy as the main character, while also adding to his increasing paranoia that any of these people could discover his work or parts of his work that he’d rather forget.
These are fleeting dalliances to give Harry as a character more depth, I believe, and it makes the film all the better for it. Now rather than being a somewhat archetypal character who hides away listening in to private discussions, he becomes a character with a hint of darkness and mystery.
Add to this a steady escalation of the main intrigue, the kind of intrigue that leads us to question Harry even more, as we don’t know if he’s delusional or his paranoia is justified, and it all comes together as an incredibly satisfying thriller; one which will leave you guessing with each replay of the eponymous conversation, and lead you to believe any number of possibilities behind it.
The film even manages to completely land the conclusion, which is rare in a film which includes a mystery, it’s a surprising twist on the expectation the film leads you to build, it wrong-foots you, but not in a way which makes you feel cheated, more in a way that makes you admire its skill in sleight-of-hand.
The acting is uniformly strong also, with Gene Hackman playing against his usual type as a pathetic, dour, loner. His is the kind of character you are constantly questioning, you can’t trust his version of events when he seems to be so delusional, even when the film makes it seem justified.
The film also has a strong supporting cast including such names as Copolla regular John Cazale, and everyone’s favourite nerf-herder Harrison Ford. All the characters work together in building a tapestry of mistrust, all of them impossible to count on, but all compelling in their own way.
Sandwiched between the first two Godfather films, The Conversation is a product of a director who’s really hitting their stride. He’s bringing out excellent performances, the cinematography is top-notch, it being another example of building a narrative that is hard to deconstruct by cleverly framing and disguising key moments in several different ways, and he pieces together an intriguing mystery as well as a tense thriller in one incredibly gratifying package.
I do have certain points to pick about the film, it could feel a touch slow at times, specifically in the earlier stages of the film, and it does use a fair few of the usual portrayals of delusion in film, but it doesn’t quite wander into the stereotyping territory and uses them fleetingly enough for it to not be too much of a problem.
Overall then, I think The Conversation builds a really satisfyingly tense atmosphere, alongside an unfolding mystery that grows in complexity as the film goes on, drawing the audience in as the stakes grow in parallel to Harry’s delusional paranoia. It may not be remembered as much as Coppola’s biggest works, but it is an example of a great filmmaker flexing his narrative muscles, between perhaps his two biggest projects. If nothing else, it’ll make you very careful about what you say on the phone in the future, you never know who might be listening…